Albert B. Woet
Dr. Woet is dean of the College of International Studies at the American University of Kurdistan in Duhok, Iraq.
According to the conventional wisdom, the United States is in relative decline While some international relations (IR) theorists contest the notion that the United States is another weary titan,the majority of social scientists posit that it is time for America to search for a grand strategy befitting a declining great power. The strategy most often suggested is retrenchment, and the place to start is the Middle East.
What U.S. interests are at stake in the Middle East? Would retrenchment there mean that more resources would be used to combat potential threats posed by a rising China and an ever-meddlesome Russia? If so, to what extent should the U.S. pull back from the region?
Traditionally, the debate over retrenchment has been treated as a dichotomy between engagement and complete withdrawal, but there are degrees of retrenchment available to great powers. This essay will explore the tradeoffs involving three types of retrenchment: budget cuts, redistribution and redeployment, and withdrawal. We will discuss the implications of pulling back across three areas traditionally of interest to American policymakers: maintaining the flow of Gulf oil, stemming the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and managing the potential threat posed by Iran. Internal retrenchment calls for budget cuts at home, starting with the defense budget, while redistribution and redeployment demand the U.S. engage in greater burden-sharing, first with available allies, then with enemies if necessary. The third strategy, withdrawal — reminiscent of Britain's East of Suez approach in 1971 — would mean the United States would simply pull up stakes and leave. While each of these strategies involves sacrifices, redistribution and redeployment may be the most difficult to implement due to the lack of states ready to pick up U.S. obligations. Many of America’s allies, despite their large defense budgets, lack the ability to project military capabilities across great distances in order to keep open the Gulf oil flowing. Adversarial states, such as China, prefer a light military footprint and may be unwilling to take up traditional U.S. commitments.
TYPES OF RETRENCHMENT
Robert Gilpin famously argued that, while imperial overstretch was a cause of imperial decline, withdrawal from peripheral commitments signals weakness to other competitors, even if maintenance of such possessions exacerbates relative decline. While some states have doubled down in the face of relative decline because of cognitive as well as domestic political constraints, scholars such as Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent have established that relative military and economic decline generate potent incentives for great-power retrenchment.
The first strategy of retrenchment powers may resort to is internal. Facing a low level of relative decline, a state may “reduce spending on the military and foreign affairs,” revising their force structures to balance against the most pressing threats to their existence. For example, a sea power will divert resources from its land to naval forces, while a land power is likely to do the reverse. Another way declining powers attempt to save resources is through cuts to their bureaucracies, starting with their foreign and defense ministries. Finally, a declining power may reallocate resources from guns to butter in order to stimulate its economy. One of the key U.S. interests in the Middle East has been the maintenance of Persian Gulf oil. After the end of the Cold War, American decision makers feared the emergence of a capricious regional hegemon that could manipulate world oil prices on a whim. A related concern is that, because oil is a cumulative resource, control increases the ability to acquire additional goods, raising the likelihood of regional conflict. There is also the dire possibility of an Iranian cutoff of shipping through the Straits of Hormuz.
The reemergence of fracking has seen the United States emerge as an energy superpower in its own right. While not energy independent, the country is far less sensitive to fluctuations in the price of oil from the Middle East than it was a decade ago, much less during the embargoes of 1973 and 1979. The United States could more easily afford the cutbacks required by internal retrenchment in order to focus on the challenges posed by China and Russia.
The United States would likely remain hawkish on the proliferation of nuclear weapons under a strategy of internal retrenchment, as the great power always hopes to be able to make a comeback. However, others’ nuclear weapons make it more difficult for great powers to project conventional military force. This is partly because of the possibility of falling nuclear dominoes; deterrence from being able to use force in the first place ; and the risk of an accident — complex organization is needed to control nuclear weapons.
Since 1979, the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) have been rivals. Some believed a rapprochement was possible when the Obama administration and the rest of the P5+1 reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to restrict Iran’ nuclear program. However, shortly after Donald Trump became president, the United States left JCPOA and began to reimpose the sanctions that had been suspended. Under internal retrenchment, the United States could rearrange its resources to focus primarily on containing and isolating Iran — to the detriment of other security interests, from loan guarantees for Israel and humanitarian aid, to continuing to combat ISIS.
Redistribution and Redeployment
A relatively recent equivalent of redistribution and redeployment is the Nixon Doctrine, as spelled out in his Guam Speech of 1969. This strategy shores up resources in the face of decline by “decreasing commitments while limiting risks.” Great powers will reduce “forward deployed forces” and engage in burden-sharing with allies first, then adversaries if they must. The Nixon Doctrine is an exemplar of this approach in two prominent circumstances: Vietnamization and the Twin Pillar policy. Nixon began shifting some ground fighting to America’s South Vietnamese allies, and he outsourced some of the policing of the Middle East to Iran and Saudi Arabia, escalating conventional arms sales to both states as a result.
Great powers will redistribute resources to more important or more threatening regions, cutting the number of costly commitments. As a final option, they may attempt to cut deals with regional adversaries from spheres-of-influence arrangements to resolving longstanding territorial disputes. Under a strategy of retrenchment, the United States could attempt to engage in burden-sharing with regional allies to maintain the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, limit nuclear proliferation, and work with allies to contain Iran. However, America’s allies in the region are not viable candidates for burden-sharing; they lack power-projection capabilities. Iraq, for example, is not a viable partner; the bulk of its military is designed to maintain domestic order. Neither are well-armed states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Although their defense budgets are significant and have grown in recent years, they are not on a par with what the United States is able to project in policing the commons (air and sea). One way to overcome this would be to take a page out of the Nixon administration’s book and increase arms sales to Gulf allies, including systems that would enable them to boost their power-projection capabilities. It is important to note that many Arab states have historically had great difficulty with their operational effectiveness.
Another option is cutting deals or effecting a rapprochement with regional adversaries. Currently, the Trump administration is pursuing a policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, having withdrawn from JCPOA and imposing a host of new sanctions in the hope of inducing it to act like a “normal” country. The Trump administration would have to reverse course on maximum pressure and rejoin the JCPOA.
Another potential option for the United States is to burden-share with its most likely peer-competitor, China. This option is also problematic, however. At first glance, America and China have complementary interests in the region. Both want to maintain regional political stability and the open flow of oil. States in the region prefer China’s hands-off, no-strings-attached approach to loans and aid, whereas the U.S. package comes with demands ranging from improvements on human rights to changes in patterns of governance and economic reforms.
Some skeptics have pointed to what they term China’s String-of-Pearls strategy — the projection of power in the region as a natural extension of its presence from Thailand and Myanmar to the Port of Sudan and Djibouti. China’s operations in Libya in 2011 and the construction of the Liaoning carrier demonstrate that it has the ability to project military power into the Indian Ocean and establish light military footprints. For China, American forces deployed in the Middle East mean fewer deployed to Asia, leaving China with fewer incentives to assist the United States in rebalancing its commitments in the Middle East. Generally speaking, “China maintains a deep aversion to overseas military bases.” They seem to prefer low-cost security arrangements as opposed to anything concrete. “Hard footprints” involve not only building military bases on overseas territory, but reaching status-of-forces agreements (SOFAs) to allow military personnel free access to and from the base. They necessitate military objectives, from collecting intelligence to deterrence. Some analysts see China’s military footprint as designed to secure commercial rather than geopolitical objectives — for example, protecting commercial vessels from piracy, such as the Gulf of Aden convoy fleet, and other forces that are watching over ports from Pakistan to Tanzania.
Like the other strategies of retrenchment, withdrawal is driven by the need to shelter resources. But, rather than simply pulling back the number of forward-deployed forces, withdrawal requires all forces to return home. Whereas the previously discussed strategy relied on burden sharing with allies, proponents of withdrawal see allies as part of the problem. They are concerned about being chain-ganged into a conflict by self-centered allies over issues in which U.S. interests are only peripheral.
Instead of sharing burdens with allies, a strategy of withdrawal involves abrogating commitments in order to save resources while relying on nuclear deterrence in order to defend the nation’s survival. Erstwhile allies would be left to fend for themselves. This would ultimately limit national defense to the continental United States and its immediate possessions. On the three main interests under discussion — maintaining the free flow of Gulf oil, limiting nuclear proliferation, and containing Iran — proponents of withdrawal take a very different attitude from proponents of engagement. With respect to the free flow of oil, proponents of withdrawal agree with proponents of redistribution that regional powers as well as states that are direct buyers of Middle East oil should take greater responsibility for providing this public good. However, the U.S. should focus more on American energy “independence.” “Protecting the free flow of oil, while vital to the global economy, is not the best path to [oil] security in the long run. The best path is to get off our reliance on oil in the first place.” Some support greater reliance on green sources of energy that would ultimately end U.S. dependence on fossil fuels entirely, while others call for more dramatic deregulation, allowing greater fracking and the export of American oil.
With respect to nuclear proliferation, proponents of withdrawal suggest that more may be better. Some proponents of withdrawal may advocate policies consonant with “proliferation optimism,” suggesting that a growing number of latent and fully fledged nuclear powers would only bring greater stability because they would eliminate states’ need for territory in order to defend themselves. Because their survival is assured, nuclear states are less risk-accepting and conflict-prone than non-nuclear powers. Furthermore, because nuclear weapons also bring greater certainty about the relative balance of power, there is a lower likelihood of a miscalculation that could foster conflict.
The containment and management of potential threats posed by Iran would, once again, be left to regional powers. For proponents of withdrawal, the U.S. presence in the Middle East is at once provocative and unnecessary. Iran does not have the capability to pose an existential threat to the United States. Even if their ultimate intention is to build a nuclear weapon, this is a manageable threat. For some proliferation optimists, to the extent that Iran is an aggressor, the acquisition of nuclear weapons would likely make Tehran less antagonistic toward its neighbors.
According to conventional wisdom, the United States is another Weary Titan in need of a new grand strategy to accommodate the shifting balance of power. For many who believe the United States is in decline, retrenchment is the go-to grand strategy. However, two problems bedevil this debate. First, both proponents and opponents of retrenchment often fail to recognize that there are degrees of retrenchment available. Second, the different sides in this debate do not agree on the current relative distribution of capabilities, much less the likely near-term balance of power.
Retrenchment necessitates retracting commitments in the face of relative decline. However, three degrees of retrenchment are available to declining powers: internal retrenchment (which involves budget-cutting), redistribution and redeployment (which requires greater burden sharing with other parties in a region) and withdrawal (pulling out completely). For social scientists such as MacDonald and Parent, the degree of retrenchment is determined in large part by the impending relative decline.
While each of these strategies of retrenchment has its strengths and weaknesses, redistribution and redeployment in the Middle East would likely be the toughest to pull off, due to a lack of willing partners for burden-sharing. A critique that could be leveled at all the strategies of retrenchment — withdrawal, in particular — is that they leave a power vacuum that would likely exacerbate the security dilemma a great power is extracting itself from. While very few experts who follow the region would likely call it “stable,” it is open to speculation how much more chaotic the region could become in the face of American withdrawal. Policymakers, IR theorists and pundits alike need to recognize that retrenchment is not a one-size-fits-all strategy; there are degrees available to great powers such as the United States. Each one would necessitate different sacrifices.
1 See Daniel W. Drezner, “This Time is Different: Why U.S. Foreign Policy Will Never Recover,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 98, No. 3 (May/June 2019), pp. 10-17.
2 Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, America Abroad: Why the Sole Superpower Should Not Pull Back From the World (Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 14-48; see also Michael Beckley, Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower (Cornell University Press, 2019), chs. 2-4.
3 Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman-Wittes, “America’s Middle East Purgatory: The Case for Doing Less,” Foreign Affairs, Vol,. 98, No. 1 (January/February 2019), pp. 88-100.
4 For example, see Charles L. Glaser and Rosemary Kelanic, eds., Crude Strategy: Rethinking the U.S. Military Commitment to Defend Persian Gulf Oil (Georgetown University Press, 2016).
5 Robert Gilpin, War and Change in War Politics (Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 184.
6 See Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, Balancing Risks: Great Power Intervention in the Periphery (Cornell University Press, 2004); see also Jack L. Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and Imperial Ambition (Cornell University Press, 1991).
7 Haynes, “Decline and Devolution,” p. 491.
9 Ibid., 724.
10 Ibid., 736.
11 Ibid., 748. A contrary view suggests that a declining power may engage in preventive war in order to enjoy a larger slice of the postwar peace “pie” as soon as possible. See Robert Powell, “War as a Commitment Problem,” International Organization, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 169-203.
12 On resource cumulativity and conflict, see Peter Lieberman, Does Conquest Pay? The Exploitation of Occupied Industrial Societies (Princeton University Press, 1998); Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War: Power and the Roots of War (Cornell University Press, 1999). For a rejoinder in the age of globalization, see Stephen G. Brooks, Producing Security: Multinational Corporations, Globalization, and the Changing Calculus of Conflict (Princeton University Press, 2005).
13 Joshua Rovner, “After America: The Flow of Persian Gulf Oil in the Absence of American Military Force,” in Glaser and Kelanic, ch.5, loc. 3583.
14 On the role of beliefs of falling nuclear dominoes in U.S. non-proliferation policy, see Nicholas D. Miller, Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of U.S. Nonproliferation Policy (Cornell University Press, 2018).
15 Matthew Kroenig, “Force or Friendship? Explaining Great Power Nonproliferation Policy,” Security Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, (Winter 2014), p. 7.
16 Trita Parsi, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy (Yale University Press, 2017), pp. 289-317.
17 MacDonald and Parent, Twilight of the Titans, loc. 783.
19 Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah : The United States and Iran in the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 28-64.
20 MacDonald and Parent, Twilight of the Titans, locs. 793, 816, 828.
21The Military Balance (London: IISS, 2019), pp. 321-322, 325, 327-331.
22 See Kenneth Pollack, Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness (Oxford University Press, 2019).
23 See Michael R. Pompeo, “Confronting Iran : The Trump Administration’s Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 97, No. 6 (November/December 2018), pp. 60-70.
24 Degang Sun, “China’s Military Relations in the Middle East,” in James Reardon-Anderson, ed., The Red Star and the Crescent: China and the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2016), loc. 1667.
25 Jon B. Alterman, “China, the United States, and the Middle East,” in Reardon-Anderson, 860.
26 Ibid., 796.
27 Andrew Scobell,”China’s Search for Security in the Greater Middle East,” in Reardon-Anderson, loc. 1667.
28 Sun, “China’s Military Relations in the Middle East,” in Reardon-Anderson, loc. 1703.
29 Ibid., loc. 1833.
30 Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey Sapolsky, “Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation,” International Security, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Spring 1997), pp. 5-48.
31 Steve A. Yetiv and Katerina Oskarsson, Challenged Hegemony: The United States, Russia, and China in the Persian Gulf (Stanford University Press, 2018), loc. 142.
32 Kenneth N. Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 3 (September 1990), pp. 730-745.
33 Kenneth N. Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, No. 4 (July/August 2012), pp. 2-5. Others have disputed the notion that nuclear acquisition necessarily mitigates states’ propensity to engage in aggression. See S. Paul Kapur, “India and Pakistan’s Unstable Peace: Why Nuclear South Asia is not like Cold War Europe,” International Security, Vol. 30, No. 2 (October 2005), pp. 127-152; see also Mark S. Bell, “Nuclear Opportunism: A theory of how states use nuclear weapons in international politics,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Winter 2019), pp. 3-28.
34 Stephen M. Walt, “The End of Hubris and the New Age of American Restraint,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 98, No. 3 (May/June 2019), pp. 26-35.
35 Paul MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent, “Graceful Decline: The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment,” International Security, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Spring 2011), p. 11.
37 Nuno P. Monteiro, “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity is not Peaceful,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Winter 2011/2012), pp. 9-40.